In the beginningish there was USENET
February 16, 2022 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Back when politicians were referring to the "Information Super Highway there was USENET where a great deal of information was exchanged. Norman Yarvin curated some of that infomation on topics such as Air Conditioning, Bicycles, Cars, Chemistry, Computers, Explosives & Pyrotechnics, Food, Metalworking, Telephones, Physics, Space and many more. He published them into the Yarchive {main index link} where it has been available ever since.

Doubles Jubilee Post. My original is here; the first occurrence on Metafilter is here; and it was a supporting link here.
posted by Mitheral (38 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
The other day I was going through some things and I found a 1/8" thick pad of fanfold paper that was just a list of newsgroup names printed on a dot matrix printer. Some of the newsgroups had been circled by me probably when I was about eleven or twelve--I think those were the ones I wanted to subscribe to.

I never got into USENET. I think it's because most of the newsgroups that appealed to me when I was that age (cartoons, video games, ones with funny-sounding names*) weren't active enough to hold my attention for very long.

* Regretfully, this included that one. Pre-teen me had some growing up to do.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 11:48 AM on February 16 [2 favorites]

Good opportunity for another RIP for, which appeared around 2001 and had an archive of most of usenet up to that point, including my first post from around 1986. Google bought it and shortly killed it.
posted by morspin at 11:48 AM on February 16 [23 favorites]

there was USENET

Well done.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 12:25 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

I haven’t been on Usenet since Comcast dropped free access way back in 2008. It was cool and all, but not enough to pay for access through a dedicated provider.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:27 PM on February 16

good heavens I spent a TON of time on usenet in university and grad school (probably mostly 94-97). Particularly brewing and winemaking and camping / hiking fora. Tried to track some of the clubby humor sites but they were mostly a bit too obscure.
posted by hearthpig at 12:41 PM on February 16 [2 favorites]

What a fantastic collection. It's interesting to me that these are mostly individual posts, not FAQs. I thought FAQs were going to be forever, the compendiums of wisdom from various newsgroups.

"Google bought and killed Deja News" is not a fair summary of what happened. Deja was broke and within days of shutting down when Google bought it. Then the Google engineers had a very, very short time to get all the data and put it online, it was more of a rescue operation than a strategic acquisition. Also Google Groups does still operate (barely) and provides access to Usenet archives (barely). It's a terrible Usenet product, a dead end, and I keep expecting Google Groups to disappear entirely someday. But Usenet was already in deep decline by the time of the Deja acquisition and would have only continued to decline with or without Google.

Except it lives! Usenet these days is mostly a vast and complex system for downloading unlicensed copies of TV shows and movies. It's sort of crazy how it evolved to be that.

Also the spirit of Usenet lives on. I'd argue Metafilter itself is pretty newsgroupish. Reddit is the most self consciously evolution of Usenet I participate in.

Bonus link: Usenet Archives, a new and nicely working Usenet archive search built on archives and independent of Google.

posted by Nelson at 12:42 PM on February 16 [20 favorites]

Aw, man, the memories. I read and participated in Usenet through college and part of grad school, including moderating a very high traffic group for several years.

I was just reflecting the other day that I’m still an online acquaintance of one of my fellow moderaters, decades on now. We have never met in person and probably never will, but he’s a great dude and I’m glad to know him.
posted by Sublimity at 12:52 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

With the destruction of Usenet Gen-X managed to bury most of the embarrassing comments we posted online during our college years
posted by interogative mood at 1:03 PM on February 16 [34 favorites]

It's endlessly amusing to me that one of the biggest websites on the internet, reddit, is basically a web interface to a centralized usenet.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:48 PM on February 16 [14 favorites]

...reddit, is basically a web interface to a centralized usenet.

But without that one missing .rar segment to the 12 segment binary you’ve been dl’ing for the past 10 hours.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:28 PM on February 16 [14 favorites]

Wait, you're not seeding the torrent?
posted by k3ninho at 2:48 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

You’ve obviously never gotten a terse nastygram from you isp regarding “suspicious traffic” originating from your ip.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:19 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

Not on the grey but an idealized merger of the best of MIFI with the best of USENET would be pretty great. Some kind of topic consolidation would be a boon to this place and usenet really really needed the concept of moderation and a better ban-hammer. Usenet was actually distributed not like the virtual peculation of WEB3 or the misoriented IPSF. But that was a sweet idealistic time (profit not even imagined by anyone).
posted by sammyo at 4:46 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]

You’ve obviously never gotten a terse nastygram...

No, but I have cost the net hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by sending my messages everywhere.

I'll post my ode to USENET now. I spent my high school years immersed in the BBS culture, then started my computer science education right around the time the Internet was picking up. Like, people still had email addresses with bangpaths and whatnot. I'd tell my BBS friends that USENET was the future and they just laughed. was my one corner of the universe where I hung out, then after leaving school was a nexus for keeping in touch with other players and collectors like myself. I eventually got a job in the pinball industry thanks to the people I met there. You could fire up your newsreader once or twice a day and be able to read it all. We self-moderated and the trolls weren't that many. There was soooo much potential. Then it all went away.

It was NOT easy to get a news feed in the early 1990s if you weren't enrolled in a university. Luckily I found Chinet, which offered a login and a trn instance for nearly nothing, and that became another great community that got me through the 1990s. Thank you, Randy*.

(*PS: Randy Suess passed away in late 2019. I should have put together a FPP about it at the time and I didn't, and I regret it.)
posted by mookoz at 4:58 PM on February 16 [9 favorites]

Lol youngsters. Around 1988 I switched from Physics to CS to get email and USENET and then wen to work for the university IT department. Oh my, went to FATBOB the first annual talk.bizarre bring own bottle meetup. We also invited over a minor lol troll and handcuffed him to a tree and took pictures and then went out for tacos. I used to read USENET by grepping /var/spool/news and would show up anytime I was mentioned. Have a weird story about alt.gothic a few years later that should end in "nice boots want to fuck" but even that was not needed. Ran an NNTP server on my bitchin' Linux box.

One failed mid 1990's interview ended up being me talking to this guy who points behind me to the shelf on the wall where there's a can of SPAM with "To the SPAM king" sharpied on it. LOL, accidental interview with 90's USENET spammer. Did not end well.

USENET was so much fun way back then. Get off my lawn.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:59 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]

Larry Wall the author of Perl also wrote the rn (readnews) program. Go figure.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:03 PM on February 16 [3 favorites]

Ooh, ohh, and I knew Kibo! Really nice guy. (not well but recall giving him a ride home one day)
posted by sammyo at 5:22 PM on February 16 [6 favorites]

My earliest post that I can find in the Usenet Archives mentioned above is from October of 1982. I'm pretty sure I posted earlier than that, but the archives "only" go back to February 1981.

Good memories.
posted by blob at 7:13 PM on February 16 [4 favorites]

I always found it interesting how FidoNET was like an alternate history combination of Usenet and UUCP. It was also interesting how you could get both Usenet and FidoNET feeds over satellite into the 2000s.

Same problems to be solved, just in a different context.
posted by wierdo at 12:32 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]

Oh, the amount of time in 1993 that nineteen-year-old me spent in alt.vampyres while listening to Tori Amos and Concrete Blonde...
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:51 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Met my wife on rec.pets.cats! We split up a few years ago but we're still good friends and we had 22+ years together. So yay Usenet.
posted by mikeand1 at 8:14 AM on February 17 [3 favorites]

I used to read USENET by grepping /var/spool/news and would show up anytime I was mentioned.

Wait you're kibo?
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 9:45 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]

I've been doing 45 in the fast lane of the information super highway wearing a hat since 1993...
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:56 AM on February 17

I discovered USENET in 1991 when I had to use a computer in the basement of the university library. alt.adoption was where I learned that as an adult adoptee legally barred from having my original birth certificate for life, I was not alone and there were political movements afoot. Later, Oregon would become the first state to unseal its previously sealed adoption records after a statewide referendum. A 501c3 activist group formed out of alt.adoption was instrumental in its passing.

rec.pets.dogs.behavior had more arguments than did alt.abortion, but one of the rpdb members was also a Kibologist, so that's how I found alt.religion.kibology.

Metafilter & USENET do feel similar in the best ways.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 1:32 PM on February 17

I learned so much about bicycles - repair, training regimens, etc. - from alt.rec.bicycles. I was sad to see the web kill usenet. It wasn't all trolling and nonsense, but that was fun too.
posted by caddis at 1:53 PM on February 17

My spouse and I met on rec.arts.bodyart back in the early 90s, so I'll forever be grateful to USENET for that.
posted by Lexica at 2:40 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

USENET was my introduction to the infinite diversity in the world. For a country kid it was staggering that there were other people out there who were interested in the same tiny niche things I was interested in! And people who had completely different lives and experiences! And there were SO MANY other people out there and they would share their experiences and ideas and tips, scatter them around freely like they were throwing rose petals or confetti.

I think I was in my last year of my degree (am old). I didn't even have a computer but partner used to bring his work one home. Occasionally I could go and sit in a corner at his workplace ostensibly to type my thesis but really to get on usenet or on Netscape Navigator and marvel at the homepages of people in America or Norway. My partner used to download all the daily posts from my favourite groups and bring them home on a floppy so I could read them as static posts, before we had home internet, that's how much I loved and longed for that connection to the rest of the world.

I also have very dear friends today who I first met on assorted groups. I know of at least four marriages of people who first met on Usenet.

There was so much less online monetism and cynicism, and so much more willingness to share. I really do miss it.
posted by andraste at 3:04 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]

I recently learned that my coworkers hadn't heard of Monty Python. I tried to explain that that they'd been so important to a few generations of people, to the point that there was a BOMP on AFU and what that meant and... at that point I realized just how awful I sounded and stopped talking.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:40 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

Usenet, and taught me … uhhh … “especially exciting” chemical syntheses, for which I am eternally grateful.
posted by aramaic at 8:07 PM on February 17

"Google bought and killed Deja News" is not a fair summary of what happened. Deja was broke and within days of shutting down when Google bought it. Then the Google engineers had a very, very short time to get all the data and put it online, it was more of a rescue operation than a strategic acquisition.

I just don't understand this. Either they have the data, in which case it should just be a lump of text that should be trivially searchable, or they don't have it. But they somehow seem to have a big pile of data that you can sort of see stuff that might be in there but nobody knows how to pull it out? How can that be a thing?
posted by straight at 10:04 AM on February 18

Do you want to understand it or are you just being rhetorically annoyed?

When Google Groups first launched its search for what Deja News did it worked pretty well. OK, not the first week or two in early 2001 but later it did fine. Google was committed to building a good Usenet search engine and they did. It was still returning good Usenet search results through 2005 at least.

But thus begins the long, slow sad story of Google Groups. It turned into a mailing list product that had a Usenet archive awkwardly attached. Over time the mailing list stuff got more attention. Then the whole product foundered, there were a couple of years where I think Google Groups got no attention at all. It's still pretty awful for everything it does; I suspect the only reason Google Groups is still online is too many people would complain if they disabled the mailing lists.

The Usenet search has suffered more than most. Turns out there's not a Google-sized business opportunity for a search engine for messages a bunch of CS department nerds exchanged with each other in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2022 it's pretty easy, technically, to build a search engine for a corpus as small as Usenet archives. The other Usenet search engine I linked above works quite well. IIRC it's basically just a frontend for Postgres and uses Postgres full text search. That means it's pretty limited and not very clever, but refreshingly straightforward in how the search works.
posted by Nelson at 1:51 PM on February 18

My sole claim to fame-adjacency is being a footnote in the net.legends.faq. Usenet was a world to itself that could only exist in the space between being possible and being exploitable. I miss it.

posted by Combustible Edison Lighthouse at 6:43 PM on February 18 [4 favorites]

a world to itself that could only exist in the space between being possible and being exploitable

This is a really, really great turn of phrase that I am totally stealing.
posted by aramaic at 6:47 PM on February 18 [1 favorite]

Do you want to understand it or are you just being rhetorically annoyed?

Yes, I'm very much in earnest. That site doesn't seem to do anything. I type in a search term (for stuff I know was in the DejaNews archive) and it just gets stuck with black and red balls blobbing back and forth.

Like you say, the corpus can't be very big. It'd think it would be less than a rounding error compared with what Google regularly indexes and searches. Why doesn't Google groups search just work?

Is there a torrent of the DejaNews archive floating around?
posted by straight at 2:47 AM on February 19

The problem is sifting out the 99.9% of the data that's just cross-posted nested Tholen replies.
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 5:29 AM on February 19 works great for me.

Why doesn't Google groups search just work?

A good product is a lot more work than just an index. Building a search engine for dynamic new content (Google Groups mailing list posts) is a different problem than static old content (Usenet archives). And as I said in my last comment Google doesn't care any more about search for articles from the 80s and 90s. They barely care about Google Groups at all. It is a commercial dead end.

Is there a torrent of the Deja News archive floating around?

I very much doubt it. Deja News' archive was proprietary, they spent a lot of time and money building it before going broke and Google buying it. Google spent a lot more time making it better in the early 00s. That work cost money. It's not just free for the right clicking.

If you revisit the link I posted above you will find a long description of how Usenet Archives works. Including, yes, a link to a torrent of a Usenet archive. It's Henry Spencer's UTZoo archive which has been passed around in bulk format several times and was also one of the key bases of Deja News. (We are very lucky spence did the work to make this archive at the time!). That's the data; the post also has descriptions of how he turned that into a search product.

There are many other Usenet archives on, including a very interesting looking dataset from Giganews. It will take a fair amount of work to sift through it all and groom it into a useful corpus for search.

I apologize if I sound impatient, but these comments read like a form of entitlement. "Of course 35 year old posts should be freely searchable in the way I want; it's so easy!" It's a lot of damn work. Amazingly, Jozef Jarosciak did that work in late 2020 for us, and open sourced it, and documented it.
posted by Nelson at 6:17 AM on February 19 works great for me.

Okay, thanks. I can get it to give some results for single words sometimes, but here's some examples of searches where it just hangs indefinitely (some of them chosen from subject lines of posts that are definitely in its archive):

William Shatner
Archimedes Plutonium
Stop Casting Porosity
"Jesse Garon"
vanishing volunteer
Lite Brite
Ethical Mirth Gas

I apologize if I sound impatient, but these comments read like a form of entitlement. "Of course 35 year old posts should be freely searchable in the way I want; it's so easy!"

I don't know anything about what makes text searching hard or difficult. You're the one who said it was an easy thing to do in 2022. I was wondering what then the actual obstacles are. I can imagine wanting to preserve threading or something like that would be a nightmare, but I don't have any idea why these archives give such partial results to text searches.
posted by straight at 11:18 AM on February 19

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